It's no secret when it comes to Westerns, Black men and women have been virtually erased from that narrative. But with Netflix's latest release, The Harder They Fall, filmmaker Jeymes Samuel set out to shine a new light by bridging popular culture with historical figures that inspired the film's characters. His directorial debut has turned into an instant hit with an all-star cast, including Regina King, Idris Elba, Jonathan Majors, LaKeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz, and many more. Each actor beautifully brought their characters to life and their pioneering legacies from Cuffee to Bass Reaves, Cherokee Bill, Bill Pickett, and others.
21Ninety recently spoke with Samuel, and when asked what the one key takeaway he hoped audiences gained after watching this film was, he said, "These people [characters] existed in that space in time. Black people in the Old West weren't subservient, nor were any persons of color. And we weren't slaves. There were decades of the Old West post-slavery. We weren't just these creatures that exist in the storylines they gave to us in Hollywood."
But that's not all. Representation within the Jay-Z produced Black Western extended to gender dynamics, with LGBTQ+ representation and explored the dynamism of two badass women vital to Rufus Buck and Nat Love's gangs. Read on to hear exclusively from the star-studded cast about fashion serving as a cultural conduit, screenwriter Jeymes Samuel's inspiration behind bringing Black Western culture to the forefront of mainstream media, and how the power of vulnerability was the driving force behind this tale of revenge from every angle.
Dontaira Terrell: How are you doing today?
Jeymes Samuel: I'm doing absolutely golden!
DT: That's great to hear! I want to first start by discussing how the film dives into many dynamics. Of course, one of them is bringing Black Western culture to the forefront of mainstream media. What do you hope audiences take away after watching this film?
JS: I want them to take away the fact that women were bold and powerful like they are today. Just because it was 150 years ago, it doesn't mean women were weak all of a sudden. You can show stories where women are not just working girls, women of the night or this, that, and the other. You can show a story where Black people, people of color, and people of different sexes had power, grace, dignity, and strength. I want people to leave and start researching all of the characters that are portrayed on screen.
DT: And speaking to women, what was your reasoning behind showcasing and developing the women as central characters and the backbone to both Nat Love and Rufus Buck's story?
JS: Women are central characters and the backbone of every single story in the history of mankind. There would be no Jesus without mother Mary. So, can we please have women in the Old West that aren't just some subservient love interests that are literally gun-toting smartly?
One of my favorite movies is Johnny Guitar starring Joan Crawford, but they don't do half the things they should do with Joan Crawford, one of the most powerful presences in cinema history. We get an underused Joan Crawford because it's a Western and the Hollywood depiction given to us by the men working in those times. I want to show everyone that there was a much broader scope than what we've been fed, hence The Harder They Fall, which is super hard.
DT: When we meet both Rufus Buck and Nat Love, we learn they are both navigating their revenge from a place of hurt and through the lens of a wounded child. But it opens the door to reveal their vulnerabilities. So why do you think it's important to showcase the vulnerabilities of Black men on screen?
Jonathan Majors: I'd say vulnerability is the most human thing. It is something that is so grounding and something that calls and agitates empathy in others. The cheat sheet is that vulnerability is also the key. Unfortunately, the one thing we've done so long in cinema and life is that we've skipped the vulnerability part and go into the strong part without vulnerability. But it's just kind of dumb. You have to know the trouble that you're going to get yourself into when you stand up. Standing up just for the sake of it, there's a sense of ignorance in that, but standing up knowing what is at stake, you then enter into the realm of heroism.
The cause of fear is around vulnerability. Sadness is around vulnerability, and for the iconography of what it is to be a Black man in this world, we haven't been given that scope or that latitude. You have this giant of a man, of masculinity in Idris Elba. You, then, see he's actually stronger than we thought he was because we see what he's protecting and why he's behaving the way he's behaving. It's easier for me to speak to Idris in that way than it is myself. I just know that I draw my strength from being very connected to what makes me most vulnerable. That is the thing that propels us through life, and I think vulnerability is your gas tank. Without vulnerability, you cannot go far.
DT: We learn a great deal about Nat Love and Rufus Buck's background, but if we were to peel back the layers of who Treacherous Trudy is at the core and learn about her foundation contributing to the woman she is, what do you think we will discover?
Regina King: You would discover a woman that's traveled a lot. She's probably been across the entire country. She was the person that encouraged Rufus to dream his dream bigger because she had seen so much along the way. Trudy was that person who picked up things everywhere she's traveled.
We decided early on that Trudy always wears a scarf underneath her hats and then underneath her bowler. Working with the hair designer and the costume designer, we felt we could change the scarves, and the thought is maybe she was in another town that she was living in before she rode into this town, and that scarf came from there.
She has these scarves and jewelry that she collects along the way. Lakeith and I both felt like Cherokee and Trudy had a bit of affection for certain jewelry pieces. So we would pick it up along the way, or maybe we met each other when we were doing an exchange for something that we had to get that piece of jewelry. Little nuggets like that, you don't necessarily see these stories on the screen, but I think you feel that these things have happened. You feel that in the communication between the characters, at least that's our intention as artists going into it.
DT: In tackling the role of Stagecoach Mary, what have you learned or relearned about yourself throughout the process of bringing this character to life?
Zazie Beetz: I've learned that strength and softness aren't mutually exclusive. I think Mary does an interesting job of balancing the two throughout the film with her own needs as a person of not feeling like they are attached. I'm speaking specifically in terms of a romantic situation. But for myself overall, having a sense of attachment because you love someone and want to be loyal to them, but also need to honor yourself and your own needs, even in speaking to her physical strength and survivor abilities versus her softness, love, and tenderness. There's always this narrative, which I've never subscribed to, but I think it's a good reminder essentially that you have to be hard to get ahead. I think you can also be kind and gentle and get ahead as long as you're clear and have boundaries and communicate them with grace and respect. I feel in some ways she does that, but she gets scrappy too!